For the last few weeks, I've been doing a lot of cooking ahead for house guests. This weekend, I made an old standard: chicken salad. I rarely cook from a recipe, and I realized that this dish is a great example of how I keep ingredient lists in my head and can make many versions of a single dish. This time, I tried for a very simple, child-friendly version: broiled chicken, mayonnaise, chopped celery, and grapes. I served it with other cut up fruit: kiwi, papaya, melon, and mango. No last-minute effort in this.
For other occasions, I choose other ingredient combos. If I use chicken, chopped celery, apples, walnuts, and mayo, I call it Chicken Waldorf Salad. With leftover turkey, dried cranberries, mayo, nuts, and apples, I call it the day after Thanksgiving. Whatever. It's a method, not a recipe.
I always work with just a few of the possible ingredients, chosen because they seem good together. Here are some suggestions:
- The meat: I broiled some thighs and breasts, sprinkled with paprika, and cut them up. I sometimes use only white meat. In a great rush, I use pre-broiled breasts from Trader Joe. Leftovers from a grocery-store roast chicken also work. Leftover turkey works too. Any leftover poultry, for that matter.
- The sauce: for all or part of the mayo, I sometimes use yogurt or sour cream. With non-fat yogurt and mayo and white-meat only this becomes a very low-fat dish. Once I tasted a sample of Trader Joe's wasabi mayonnaise: not a bad idea. A squeeze of lemon juice can bring out the fruit flavor.
- The fruit: almost any reasonable combination works fine. I've used grapes, tangerine sections, pineapple, apple slices, mango, cantaloupe, dried apricots, dried cherries, raisins, dried cranberries, or celery. Oh, wait, that's a vegetable.
- Spices and seeds: when I want more depth of flavor, I've added curry powder, toasted sesame seeds, toasted almonds, toasted walnuts, or chopped candied ginger (preferably from Australia).
Another set of changes you could make on chicken or turkey salad would be an American Oriental version. The dressing includes soy sauce, rice vinegar, canola or sesame oil, and optionally some grated fresh ginger or toasted sesame seeds. Vegetables: celery again, Napa cabbage, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, micro-wave-blanched snow peas, or water chestnuts. You could sneak some soba noodles into this one (use the cooking directions on the package). No recipe needed.